EdWeek recently ran an opinion piece, “What Districts Need When Investing Their Funds.”1 The authors identified multiple areas, such as tutoring, summer learning, and core instruction. They noted toward the end that social-emotional and mental health supports should be prioritized.
As a psychologist with more than 35 years in the field of child development and early childhood education, I agree that social-emotional learning and mental health should be prioritized–and it should be prioritized above all other supports.
The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the mental health of people of all ages. There are short- and long-term consequences for this increased mental health crisis facing children and the adults who care for and teach them.
While adults are still susceptible to stress and anxiety, ideally, they have already learned how to manage challenging emotions. For children, many have not yet learned self-regulation skills and don’t have the tools to adequately deal with heightened emotional challenges. The result – decreased learning and academic performance, inability to appropriately relate and interact empathically with peers, and poor management of frustration - all being expressed in dysregulated behavioral concerns.
The developing brain is growing fast and furious during these first several years of life with one million new neural connections forming every second. Brain function is the interaction between genetics and experience. Given that emotional and cognitive circuitry is interrelated, positive emotional learning experiences strengthen not only regulation of emotions but also strengthen the neurological connections within the prefrontal cortex - the brain’s epicenter of executive functions such as memory, attention, and problem-solving - cognitive skills necessary for learning. When the brain is overwhelmed with dysregulated emotion, it cannot learn. Children must be taught how to regulate their emotions. For this reason, mental health must be prioritized over academic performance as being foundational to academic excellence.
As districts consider how best to allocate federal dollars, they should first address children’s and teachers’ mental health as a whole. A one-on-one approach, such as increasing counselors, while appropriate in some cases, will not address mental health for the masses. Teachers and children need to have social-emotional learning as a preventive intervention model woven into their daily activities. While investments in tools and programs to improve academic outcomes are important, mental health needs to be the number one priority as it undergirds the pathway for a strong and positive sense of self, healthy interpersonal relationships and academic success.